Milwaukee got Giannis Antetokounmpo back for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but it didn’t matter as Phoenix pulled away for a 118-105 victory Tuesday night.
Playing just a week after suffering a hyperextended knee in the Eastern Conference Finals, the two-time MVP started and looked no worse for wear in the first half, scoring 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out three assists. He also had one of defensive plays of the postseason, chasing down Mikal Bridges and blocking his shot off the backboard.
“I felt good,” Antetokounmpo said afterward. “I don’t feel pain. I can run. I can jump. I can set screens. I can rebound the ball. I can do stuff.
“I’m good. I’m happy. I’m happy that I’m out there.”
His efforts helped the Bucks trail by eight at the half. In the third quarter, though, everything fell apart as Chris Paul took over. The 36-year-old went 6-for-7 from the floor, routinely getting good looks off defensive mismatches as the Suns outscored Milwaukee 35-27 to take a 16-point lead to the fourth quarter.
“I think I could have done a better job in trusting my teammates more behind me and try to make them put the ball on the floor more,” said Brook Lopez, who frequently had to switch defensive assignment and cover Paul. “But he hit tough shots. That’s what he does. That’s what he’s done his whole career and he did that tonight.”
Phoenix’s lead increased to 20 before the Bucks went on a run to cut it to single digits. But they didn’t have enough to get over the hump and the Suns improved to 12-0 when holding a double-digit lead in these playoffs.
Paul finished with a game-high 32 points and eight assists. He became just the third player that was 36 years old or older to post 30 or more points in an NBA finals game. His backcourt mate, Devin Booker, added 27 points, while big man Deandre Ayton had 22 points and 19 rebounds.
Antetokounmpo ended up playing 35 minutes and finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds. Khris Middleton had a quiet first half before scoring 10 in the third quarter and ending up with 29 points (12-for-26 FGs) to lead the way for Milwaukee. Brook Lopez chipped in 17 points and six rebounds.
It was a tough night for Jrue Holiday. The veteran guard making his NBA Finals debut had 10 points, but he was just 4-for-14 from the field. He did offer up nine assists and grabbed seven rebounds.
“I think I had a bad shooting night. I had a lot of opportunities to make layups and shots and they weren’t falling,” Holiday said. “Again, I think I do a little bit more than scoring, just getting people plays and threes and driving to the basket, but me personally, I didn’t shoot well tonight.”
While Holiday didn’t, the Bucks as a team actually shot it well from beyond the arc, a rarity this postseason. They went 16-for-36 from deep, including Middleton hitting five 3-pointers. But they couldn’t overcome the huge advantage the Suns had at the free throw line. Phoenix shot 26 free throws and hit 25 of them. The Bucks, in comparison, were just 9-for-16 and Middleton didn’t have a single attempt, which was just the eighth time in 62 career playoff games that’s happened.
“It’s tough, you know, teams have been getting up in me lately,” Middleton said. “Just got to try to play through it. Can’t try to wait for the officials to bail me out. Just try to be strong with it. If they call a foul, they call a foul. But lately, they haven’t, so I’ve just have to play better, be stronger.”
Milwaukee has now lost Game 1 of three-straight playoff series. The club lost the first two games in the second round to Brooklyn before coming back and winning in seven games. They also lost Game 1 to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals, but were able to recover and win four of the next five games to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
“I think it’s IQ,” Holiday said of what allows them to deal with deficits and overcome them. “I think it’s character. I think it’s going through things during the season for us to get to this point and make adjustments. I also think it’s playing against different teams in the playoffs. Miami was different from Brooklyn and Brooklyn was different from Atlanta. We have a lot of references to go back to.”
The Bucks and Suns will meet for Game 2 on Thursday in Phoenix.